The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
June 21, 2011
Have you heard of Bessie Smith? I hadn’t, but I love the Blues and decided to take a trip to St. Luke’s Theatre to find out what this woman, credited as the most successful Blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, was all about. Maybe the name doesn’t ring a bell, but perhaps the songs she sang will: “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” Or maybe you are familiar with some of her more popular collaborators and mentors such as Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong. If you happen to take an interest in the Blues and want to learn a bit about this dynamic and groundbreaking woman, or if you are already a fan, you should check out The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.
Miche Braden takes on the role of Bessie and does a fantastic job. Even if you aren’t acquainted with Ms. Smith, as I wasn’t, though I’d heard most of her songs, you get the feeling that Braden has really embodied a character, and it doesn’t feel at all like an imitation. At the top of the show, Bessie emerges from a side door and owns the spotlight as soon as she opens her mouth, wearing a silky purple gown with sparkly silver jewelry to match. She is a presence, bold and brassy with a crude sense of humor. But we also experience a few moments of vulnerability, as she shares stories about her rocky marriage and her increasingly dependent relationship to alcohol. She takes us back to her childhood, when she was an awkward, heavyset child. And she tracks the early days of her career and the hardships of being a black entertainer, who was told to enter through the back door because of the color of her skin.
But as you will learn, nothing got in Bessie’s way. Like many who quickly skyrocket to fame, Bessie Smith experienced the intense scrutiny that comes with stardom. Her career went through highs and lows, but she was a true fighter who kept performing even when Columbia Records dropped her, or the Great Depression hit. And that’s what makes her so appealing.
Highlights from the show include a racy duo between Braden and saxophonist Keith Loftis to “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” My personal favorite song was “I Ain't Got Nobody,” which Braden belts from center stage, crooning notes that display a depth of soul, despite Bessie’s need to always laugh off or drink away her troubles. Bessie’s interactions with Pickle, her bassist, a semi-developed character played by Jim Hankins, are a tad cheesy, but the musicians, including Aaron Graves on piano, do a fine job playing the background music.
For someone with little knowledge of Bessie Smith, I enjoyed the mini biography, though I found the information at times to be general and the timeline of events jumped around so much, it made me believe there were some major details and story points left out by writer Angelo Parra. And despite a disturbing and prolonged microphone mishap, Braden stayed in character and never stopped performing even after the curtain call. How about an encore for that!